Russia History: 20th Century
Russia History: 20th Century

Russia History: 20th Century

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
Russia entered the 20th century during a period of revolution. Public unrest continued throughout World War I and shortly thereafter Vladimir Lenin would help to turn Russia into a socialist state. Many changes came along with the creation of the Soviet Union and the economy was further transformed with Stalin's rise to power. Then, after many people were killed in the 2nd World War hostilities with the West persisted with the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In this video, we trace the history of 20th century Russia.

This country became the world’s first constitutionally socialist state. Welcome to, and today we’ll be taking a look at the history of twentieth century Russia.

Bloody Sunday and the Russo-Japanese War

Russia opened the twentieth century ruled by Nicholas II. This violent time was marked by the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 22nd, 1905 that left hundreds killed or injured by gunfire, and the country’s eventual loss in the Russo-Japanese War.

Russian Revolution

These incidents, along with growing public unrest, led to the 1905 Russian Revolution. In response, Nicholas II immediately created a national legislature.

World War I

Russia then joined World War I after Austria declared war on its ally, Serbia. Food and fuel shortages followed while inflation and casualties rose. The first strikes on St. Petersburg hit in 1917 and eventually prompted the February Revolution. The longstanding Romanov dynasty ended when Nicholas II was forced to resign. The Russians only ended their involvement in the war when they signed the peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 with Germany. Russia also conceded several territories they had captured from the Ottoman Empire.

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks

Marxist Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin seized the opportunity and led a group of working-class Russians known as the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution in 1917. They took control of the government and formed the first socialist state.

Russian Civil War

Meanwhile, the Russian Civil War broke out that year between the anti-communist White Army and the Bolshevik Red Army. In the midst of this, the treaty that created the Soviet Union was signed on December 30th, 1922. This brought several Soviet republics under the power of the communist Bolsheviks, led by Lenin.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union adopted its constitution in 1924. This established a federal system of government controlled by the Communist Party.

Change in the USSR

The birth of the USSR – or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – prompted political, economic and social changes, including free health services and the discouragement of organized religion. The workforce grew as women were given the right to vote and abortion was legalized. Land, business and industry were also nationalized.

Joseph Stalin

During the mid-1920s, Lenin protégé Joseph Stalin seized power and accelerated the Soviet Union’s economic transformation.


In 1929, Stalin triggered massive industrialization with his first five-year plan. The government took control of agriculture by introducing collective farming. Any peasants who opposed this were either sent to Siberia, or slaughtered. Within a decade, Russia became one of Europe’s fastest-growing countries.

World War II

As Hitler’s power increased, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with the Third Reich in 1939. The tense peace between these powers unraveled two years into World War II when the German-led Axis forces invaded the USSR.

Siege of Leningrad

However, the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point. The Germans were soon ousted from Leningrad and Berlin was captured in 1945. Despite these victories, the war left 30 million Russians dead and a devastated economy.

Cold War

The rise of the Iron Curtain and the onset of the Cold War increased hostilities between Russia and the West. While the U.S. spearheaded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the USSR fought for global supremacy with the Warsaw Pact. This treaty allowed for Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.

Mid-Century Achievements

Soviet power peaked mid-century under the leadership of men like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. During that period, the world’s first nuclear power plant was constructed, Sputnik – the first space satellite – was launched, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.


Relations between the USSR and the United States deteriorated further in the 1970s and ‘80s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Federation

Russian openness and modernity was increased in the mid-1980s by prominent Communist Party member Mikhail Gorbachev, and in 1988 he became President of the USSR. In June 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the union’s largest republic, Soviet Russia. Soon after, hard-line communists attempted to overthrow Gorbachev to keep the USSR together, but failed: on December 25th, 1991 the Soviet Union officially ended and the Russian Federation was born. Yeltsin stayed on as president.

Vladimir Putin

After years of extreme instability, he handed power to former KGB official and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 31st, 1999.

Russia in the Twenty-First Century

Despite uncertainty at the end of the twentieth century, Russia can only grow stronger due to its vast resources, ingenious population and rich history.